In the landscapes of Don McCullin (London, 1935) there is nothing bucolic. They are dark and winter. Wagnerians, as the author himself describes them. In them the pain of all the wars and revolutions that the author witnessed for decades seems to resonate. When he hears a chainsaw he feels a tree die; when he distinguishes the shots of a pheasant hunt he thinks there will be blood somewhere. It is part of the high price paid by one of the greatest photographers of the second half of the 20th century for portraying barbarism. One day he decided to seek peace in the fields of Somerset, England, where little by little he tries to exorcise the most atrocious memories and the guilt that sometimes accompanies him.
"I am neither a poet nor an artist. I'm a photographer, "says McCullin. Something that does not seem so clear an artistic institution as the Tate Britain, who dedicates a great retrospective. "It is clear throughout his career that he always did things that one would not consider photojournalism," said Simon Baker, one of the three curators of the exhibition. The Art Newspaper. Thus, through more than 250 images, all of them printed by the photographer in his darkroom, the exhibition takes us into the horror of the war scenarios of Cyprus, Vietnam, Congo, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Lebanon; in the hunger of Biafra; in the conflicts of Northern Ireland; and brings us closer to the disinherited of Thatcher's England, to end with a selection of images devoid of the human figure, which includes British landscapes and still lifes, as well as a series dedicated to the majestic ruins of the confines of the Roman Empire.
The work done in times of peace shares the same aesthetic grandeur that characterizes his photographs of war, and brings up the ethical dilemma that involves producing beauty of tragedy. Thus, the British author has always been reluctant to the name of war photographer, as it could suggest that his name rests on the suffering of others. He prefers to be recognized as a photographer who has spent much of his life in different conflicts. He believes that the price of war is unacceptable and says he has never been satisfied with the impact of his images, since it has not served to end the violence and suffering they describe. His ability to approach his subjects emotionally, as well as the scope of his empathy, define his work. He himself refers to his photographic tools as his heart and his spirit. "I do not operate as a photographer but as a human being. I try to balance what I do not as a photographer but as a person, as a man, and photography has nothing to do with it. It's just something I've learned, a form of communication, "says McCullin.
Harold Evans, the director of The Sunday Times, where McCullin developed most of his career, he recalled in the documentary titled McCullin (performed by Jacqui and David Morris) how on one occasion, invited to an execution in Saigon, he arrived at the prison and decided to return without a single image following his humanitarian impulses. "The canon of his photography is delegitimizing violence. Say: these are the consequences of your terrible decisions, of your greed, of your negligence. Look at this and think again. He is a humanitarian photographer with tremendous technical skills. A genius, in my opinion. " In fact, "its ability to capture the true and devastating cost of war, poverty and hunger, both at home and abroad, is amazing and certainly served to stir the tables where the middle class readers of the The Sunday Times Y Observer"Says Aïcha Mehrez, curator of the exhibition. His truth was so uncomfortable that in 1982 the British government denied him permission to cover the conflict in the Malvinas Islands. And in 1984 he left The Sunday Times, already in the hands of Rupert Murdoch, after his differences with the then director, Andrew Neil (the photographer considered that there was a lack of seriousness in matters of international and social coverage). "The press has moved too far from the urgent news," McCullin noted a few days ago in an interview with The Art Newspaper. "I am fed up with the presence of Jamie Olivier, the Beckams, Gordon Ramsay, the footballers, and the attractive movie stars in the newspapers. It is pure narcissism. And it does not give voice to the most unfortunate ones. We need a balance that we are not reaching. "
His childhood and youth was spent in Finsburry Park. During the Second World War he had to be evacuated and for years he lived separated from his family. He wanted to be a painter and got a scholarship to study art, but the premature death of his father forced him to abandon his studies. While he was doing his military service in the RAF, a friend gave him his first camera, a Rolleicord. His baptism as a press photographer happened in Observer, with The Guv'nors, where he photographed the members of a band from his neighborhood indirectly involved in the murder of a policeman. His intuitive photographic style immediately attracted attention. It was intuition who again induced him to document the lifting of the Berlin Wall on his own, which earned him his first prize, the British Press Award. His first war was in Cyprus. It was there that he learned that small details sometimes tell much more of a story than the more obvious things. Also the "first time I felt guilty taking pictures while everyone ran to cover themselves. I ran and grabbed one of the children who left the building, "he writes. "I was learning a new profession about humanity and suffering."
He said Henri Cartier-Bresson, who did with photography what Goya did with the painting, and the editor Mark Holborn wanted to see in his compassion an anger directed at our indifference. In the exhibition his most iconic photographs are shown as Grenade Thrower, OR Shell-shocked US Marine, taken at the battle of Hue, Vietnam, the portrait of a petrified marine in the face of horror, which he shot five times in a row with his camera without the soldier even blinking once. "He immediately learned to show with clarity and strength that the horrors of war are not limited to those who fight, but to the impact on the lives of civilians," writes commissar Shoair Mavlian in the catalog of the exhibition. "It could be said, that it is in these images, where the long-term effects of war are more effectively represented: not only immediate pain and misery, but the transmission of racial and religious hatred from one generation to another."
He has never stopped observing his own people, Great Britain, whom he especially admires "his eccentricity and his ability to laugh at himself even in defeat". One of the few images that he considers as a favorite, and which he describes as "a clear example of intrusion," is surely one of the most pleasing of the shows, and is one in which a group of Englishmen appears taking advantage of the few rays of sun on a pier. "Delve into the community in which you live," he recommends to those who say they want to be war photographers. "There is a war there, you do not have to go to the other part of the world where there are bombs and projectiles. There are social wars that are worthwhile. I do not want to lead people to think that photography is only necessary through the tragedy of war. "
The series Southern Fronteirs of the Roman Empire, for whose realization he traveled to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, closes the exhibition focusing on the fact that these wonderful works were erected "through cruelty and slavery. After observing them, one walks away with contradictory feelings, and they are all valid, "the photographer tells us.
McCullin. Tate Britain, London. Until May 6.